Learn about the Oregon Coast
This section contains simple introductory information for a range of coastal geographic settings (Estuaries, Sandy Shores, Rocky Shores, Ocean Areas), coastal topics (Access, Water Quality, Hazards, Processes) and Atlas related technologies (hardware descriptions, software listings, and metadata). Any inquiry into coastal settings or topics will provide both broad background materials as well as summaries and links to more specific data.
Oregon's 22 "major" estuaries play a vital role in the ecological and economic health of the coast and the entire state. For example, they are ecologically important to many fish and wildlife species, providing migration routes and habitat for reproduction, rearing, resting, and foraging. Healthy estuaries provide important habitats for many species we value such as salmon, herring, flounder, crabs, oysters, clams, wading birds, ducks, geese, shorebirds, and harbor seals.
Headlands divide the Oregon coast into sandy shore compartments, or littoral cells. Within each littoral cell, features such as inlets, jetties, and rocky outcrops define the boundaries of even smaller compartments, or sub-cells. As many as 21 littoral cells have been identified along the Oregon coast ranging from less than 10 km to over 100 km in length. The sandy dune backed shoreline within these cells comprise about 262 of Oregon's 362 mile coastline, the remainder being headlands, bluff-backed or inlets.
More than 1400 rocks and islands are sprinkled along nearshore zone of the Oregon coast, usually in association with cliffs and other resistant rocky features of the shoreline. These rocky remnants are dramatic and picturesque, but the are also valuable habitat that supports a diverse coastal ocean ecosystem. Most of these rocks and islands are in the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge and are home to major colonies of seabirds, such as the common murre and marine mammals, including the threatened Steller sea lion.
Oregon ocean areas stretch approximately 360 miles from the mouth of the Columbia River to the California border and extend some 14 to 40 miles into the ocean.
The state's ocean jurisdiction [the Territorial Sea] extends three nautical miles from shore [Mean Low Water], although offshore rocks and islands can extend this area seaward, such as at Orford Reef near Cape Blanco.
There are two major pieces of public policy that provide and protect the publics' public access rights; the famous Oregon Beach Bill of 1967 and the State Planning Goal 17 for Shorelands. First, the Beach Bill established a permanent public easement for access and recreation along the ocean shore seaward of the existing line of vegetation, regardless of ownership.
The Oregon Beach Monitoring Program (OBMP) monitors selected Oregon coastal recreation waters for the presence of fecal bacteria, and reports elevated levels to the public. The OBMP is funded by a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, is administered by the Department of Human Services and collaborates with Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
Oregon’s ocean shore is subject to a wide range of geologic forces and climatic conditions that continually shape the coast and put life and property at risk. As development progresses into steeper slopes, ocean bluffs, and dune areas, the level of risk increases, as does the need to make better decisions about where to build and what to do to protect existing development.
Coastal erosion is a natural process that continually affects the Oregon coast. Erosion becomes a hazard when human development or public safety is threatened. Beaches, sand spits, dunes, and bluffs are constantly affected by waves, currents, tides, and storms, resulting in chronic erosion, landslides, and flooding. Changes may be gradual over a season or many years. Changes may also be drastic, occurring during the course of a single storm event.
Oregon's ocean area is a small segment of a much larger region affected by oceanographic and atmospheric forces that operate across the NE Pacific Ocean. Comprehension of this context is vital to understanding the mechanics of how the various subsystems of the coastal ocean interact, and ultimately affect coastal communities.
Ocean circulation in the north Pacific Ocean reflects large-scale air movements in the atmosphere, specifically those relating to 2 major atmospheric pressure cells: the North Pacific High and the Aleutian Low.
Winter storms in the Eastern Pacific routinely generate huge ocean waves that hit the Oregon Coast, making bluff and dune erosion a common occurrence. Erosion can threaten buildings and roads resulting in a desire to "harden" the shoreline against wave attack. At the same time, Oregonians have always considered the ocean beach to be a public resource and legacy, and shoreline armoring, while sometimes able to protect private property, can have negative effects on the public beach.